Fifty Films: a Covid-19 project
My wife, having more or less grown up without film, suggested that we watch a fair sample of films ‘everyone’ has seen but she had not. Only fifty, you say? Well, there are other things to do after all. I’m neither a film historian nor a film buff, so for what it’s worth…
All the President’s Men (1976): Not unlike a Ken
Burns epic where there is much early detail and then it leaves you hanging at
the end, Redford and Hoffman break the story of the decade and then exit stage
left. Still a good lesson in power corrupts given our Trumpist times.
(1954): Irascible James Stewart and the perennially perfect Grace Kelly almost
let their imaginations run away with them. In spite of her timeless beauty, it
is Kelly’s gaminesque exploits that win the day, lightly echoing the period’s
male desire for the feminine to become oddly masculine.
(1971): Cop flick on overdrive features the debut of Harry Callahan, master of
cinema epigram. Now did Eastwood make six films in this character, or only
five? Guess punk, do you feel lucky? To have seen them all, yes, I do.
(1958): Dolly zooms aside, don’t cast your lead and then later complain that
he’s ‘too old’ for the part to be believable. What about driving down the wrong
side of the highway, or that a national historic site is open at all hours,
including its bell tower? The movie’s plot mimics its action. Just climb up and
(1941): For six decades the ‘best film ever made’ maintains its relevance by
capturing the character of the most dangerous type of modern person; the one
who cannot love. Still a far better film than ‘Vertigo’, which for some reason
has recently assumed pride of place on the A list, it was itself never the best
– ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, ‘Metropolis’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘The Seventh
Seal’ and ‘2001’ all come readily to my mind as better films. Nevertheless, the
film remains a great work of art if only because the truth upon which it was
based is yet more terrifying.
Northwest (1959): In what must have been a very mature thriller for the time,
Grant morphs from self-interested ‘Madman’ into espionage agent as if he were
born to do so. Aside from the ludicrous ten second denouement, this is still a
solid film with many famous sequences and a clever plot.
(1969): Disturbing piece of ethnohistory is shot alternatively as docudrama and
experimental. Its theme – our persistent and perennial refusal to even attempt
to understand one another – is regrettably still current.
The Man Who
Knew Too Much (1956): Coming at the height of the Suez crisis, this still
eminently watchable thriller exhibits the excellent chemistry of Day and
Stewart, who appear to have equal agency and wit. Hitchcock’s women were always
active and represented a slightly different ideal to the prevailing winds.
Network (1976): Still a reasonable, and very prescient, satire of commodity media. Pythonesque influences abound here a few years after that show went off the air.
On the Waterfront (1954): Early Brando as a naive
but gutsy longshoreman is a solid film for its time, though you can hardly hear
it through the blaring Bernstein score. Almost as if Lenny went to Kazan and
said, ‘shoot me some background footage for my new incidental music’.
Apocalypse Now (1979): New extended version to 3.5
hours has some interesting additional scenes that would have been good in the
original cut. Still one of the best films ever made, in my opinion, but the
so-called director’s cut is far too lengthy. Even Joseph Conrad would have
Gandhi (1983): I may be becoming cynical in my old
age but this epic left me cool. Amazing film as films go but repetitive and
preachy as go narratives. Kingsley himself very convincing, Gandhi not so much.
The French Connection: (1971): Hackman and Steiger
engage in one long chase video which includes the famous Harold Lloyd inspired
car and train sequence – though Lloyd never actually crashed a vehicle in his
chase scenes, just himself. A passable crime thriller supposedly true to actual
Remains of the Day (1993): Genius atmosphere but
regrettable characters. Hopkins is brilliant as a complete loser and Thompson is
basically the female version. A solid contemporary tragedy that just
manages to avoid nostalgia.
Five Easy Pieces (1970): Early Nicholson verges on
film noir, then in its third and final(?) phase. A slightly interesting
character study that must have been a fair sample of such doings during
the generational upheaval of the era. Otherwise: huh?
The Mission (1983): Still in my personal top 10,
and me not of a religious suasion. Irons is exact in his portrayal of a living
ethic and De Niro grasps this only to let it fall from his grip right at the
end. Another true account, apparently, and certainly believable. Fantastic film
and the winner of the Palme D’Or amongst many others.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959):
Intriguing plot makes this archetypical courtroom drama fairly watchable and
current in spite of its length and some dated and sexist dialogue. The fact
that over six decades later women are still cast as willing actors of their own
demise in many assault cases raises questions about the legal system and
society more generally, which this film adeptly initiates given its time
period. The snappy Ellington soundtrack and the moment where Stewart and
Ellington share a piano also lend interest.
The Exorcist (1973): Almost coherent thriller spawned a new genre that has itself become so tired that the original views brilliantly, with Blair’s command performance well worth the Golden Globe and a should-have-been Oscar. Penderecki’s score adds to the surreal quality of the sequences while we are left to ponder the mortal weaknesses that mark our own very human descents.
The Seventh Seal (1957): One of the great works of art of the post-war period, Bergmann’s solemn meditation on the meaning of life in the face of death yet resonates underneath the shill of the mundane. The Knight’s inordinate pride provides Death with the latter’s in; the former sharing his chess tactic with an apparent monk. That one moment, seemingly too obvious for a film of this depth, reminds us that human genius contains its own tragic character flaw.
Sudden Impact (1980): This is the film with the single most famous line in cinematic history, besting the nostalgic turning away of ‘Play it again, Sam’, the fatalistic resentment of ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’, and even the ominous deadpan of ‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’. It’s not as profoundly pointed as ‘Deserves got nothing to do with it’ but it’s simplicity sums the entire human endeavor; its resistance, its refusal, its dare: it is what existence utters to history, it is what thought utters to the tradition. So go ahead…
Goodfellas (1990): Scorsese’s personalist take on
the gangster film brings a fresh view to the sub-genre, with Liotta narrating
his biography; a guy who wanted to be something he could not, due to
ethnicity and scruple. Another apparently true story and a decent film.
(1999): Although it could be generously interpreted as self-satire, this
abysmally cartoonish rescript of ‘Metropolis’ has one good thing about it: it
makes Fritz Lang look all the more the genius he actually was.
A Walk in the
Woods (2015): Gentle journey narrative places aging Redford and Nolte in the
position of asking two questions each of us must come to ask: what is the
meaning of a life well lived, and have I myself done as much? Since these are
both existential and ethical questions, the principles serve as characters in
the finest of Greek tradition.
Magnum Force (1973): The second
of the Harry Callahan quintet takes its cue from Bond-style action and
conspiracy but fashions it into a more realistic and serious ‘Star Chamber’
style plot. Eastwood plays his signature role ‘knowing well enough its
limitations’ to make it both believable and entertaining.
Tie me up, Tie me down! (1989):
Bathos and pathos meet head on in this Spanish tragi-comedy. Why do I wonder if
the theater of mental illness and that of the pornography industry are more
closely related than meets the eye? A very good film but one leaving one
counting one’s blessings.
The Enforcer (1976): The third
‘Dirty Harry’ film is well known to be the weakest of the five but even here
interesting themes such as the novel experience of women in the work force and
doing dangerous work to boot are explored, with Tyne Daly, the put-upon
greenhorn partner of Callahan, making her case for the later ‘Cagney and Lacey’
The Pelican Brief (1993): In this
barely passable political-legal conspiracy drama – melodrama? – the subtext
seems to be as much about Julia Roberts’ ever-changing hair styles as anything
to do with the now – but at least not then – tired opposition between
environment and resource extraction. The film owes much to Hitchcock’s
similarly gender-paired thrillers but this is not always a good thing. Instead
of a ludicrous ten second denouement this one is ten minutes long.
The Man who Loved Women (1977):
Truffaut’s good-natured yet poignant tribute to a now rather unfashionable
sense of romance is both amusing and all too close to the truth of things. The ‘hero’
is very much a man I recognize, and this makes him more than himself, as it
were, even if in the end he is immolated upon his own passions. Sound familiar?
The Dead Pool (1988): By now an expected formula, the last of the Callahan set yet entertains on the once. Eastwood himself stated afterwards that given his age there would be no more as the risk of self-parody was just evident even in this film. Still, a ‘swell’ series of almost archetypical character.
Marnie (1964): Sean Connery
(still alive at 89), fresh off the first three ‘Bond’ films in succession, is
still not famous enough to displace friend-of-lions activist ‘Tippi’ Hedren (still
alive at 90) in the credits of this quite serious piece about child abuse and
murder. One of Hitchcock’s last films has strong dialogue and is generally
intriguing. It must have been tough on the audiences of the day, but at least
the adorable Diane Baker (still alive at 82) really was adorable.
The Hit (1984): The absurdity of life gets in the way of the calculatedness of death. Like watching the Godfather vacationing in Fawlty Towers, Peter Prince’s writerly precision is far sharper than any would-be assassin’s eye.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999): A fluffy
piece of inconsequential nonsense, much like the Kidman character herself. I
rarely find a need to quote a popular culture critic, but Edelstein’s comments at
the time nailed it: “Who are these people
played by Cruise and Kidman, who act as if no one has ever made a pass at them
and are so deeply traumatized by their newfound knowledge of sexual
fantasies—the kind that mainstream culture absorbed at least half a century
ago?” At least, given the film is based on a 1926 Freud-inspired novella. The
only mystery herein is why Kubrick apparently imagined this was his greatest
film. But ask me if I’m going to obsess over that mystery.
Meet Joe Black (1998):
Ever-eloquent Anthony Hopkins cannot carry this twice-too-lengthy piece of
sentimental nonsense. If you want an authentic understanding of how love can
overcome death in life, listen to Mahler 2. Please.
Day (1996): About as gripping as a popcorn epic can be, we are meant to be
inspired by a global community that unites in the face of the end of
everything. However unrealistic this may be, it is an ideal that is not only
worth pursuing, but, specific to our own times, must be achieved.
American Gangster (2007): Another supposedly true story that explores the link between the Viet Nam war and a new generation of drug culture and use in the USA, as well as exposing the largest single police corruption case in US history. Gritty and yet strangely sentimental, the account was apparently so heavily fictionalized that in this specific case Ridley Scott may mean close to didley squat.
Monster’s Ball (2001): This was a surprisingly good
film about persons who manage to survive the worst and find a new life outside
everything they thought they knew. Not ‘heartwarming’ in the Hallmark Card
sense of the term but still a relief vis-a-vis the human
The King of Hearts (1966): Excellent satire of
social organization in all its absurd glory. The question of what constitutes
insanity is thoroughly explored and sent up in this unassuming little gem from
France. Features a youthful Genevieve Bujold.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1977): And speaking above
of ‘huh?’, here Nicholson is a much more well-adjusted persona who plays Abel
to his brother’s Cain. Perhaps this is the more subjectivist version of ‘The
Big Chill’ of the following year, but a pretty sad affair all round.
Boost (recent): Quebec film about the immigration
story is quite good, though inevitably tragic. The sequence in which Canadian
identity is defined from the outside in is alone worth the price of admission.
Antigone (recent): Another Quebec hit retells the
archetypical conflict between public and private morality, centered once again
in the state versus the family. Definitely for young persons, it was still a
good take on the narrative, though less convincing for older viewers given
Antigone’s own tragic flaw.
Will you ever forgive me? (2001): Sordid but true
story of a has-been writer who fakes famous writer’s letters etc. and then gets
caught. Not worth making a film about but still entertaining.
The Game (2012): Mike Douglas ends his once endless
streak of never being in a mediocre film.
High Plains Drifter (1973): Shot on the abandoned Salton Sea in California, this is an early Eastwood directed film. A decent idea for a western and of course Clint is always appealing as the justice-seeker who has at his disposal unlimited means to find it. Reminds me of some of my saga’s characters.
Amelie (2001): This film became such a cult hit that it almost seems cliché on second viewing. There is something so very Gallic about the whole thing that is both charming but also frustrating. Love may indeed be innocent in general, but surely not of itself.
The Day After (1983): The most horrifying fictional film I have ever seen, and thus the most important. Though we are in fashionably collective denial about the greatest threat to the future, nevertheless that same old threat remains. Watch this film, just don’t watch it alone.
The 24 Hour
War (2017): The epic sports car and specifically Grand Lemans battle between
Ford and Ferrari in the 1960s is eloquently explored in this fascinating set of
interviews, archival footage and contemporary retrospective. Ferrari took the
first half of the decade, Ford the second. Either way, a great watch.
All or Nothing
at All (1997): My wife and I became instant fans of Frank Sinatra after viewing
this poignant and powerful four hour affair. A heroic tale tinged with
bitterness presented the man himself as both a larger than life character and
one who nonetheless could not master that very life he came to represent.
(2018): Wincingly intimate portrait of one of F1’s most famous racing families,
living through both complete success and utter misery. Documentaries like this
one almost make me able to forgive the BBC for cancelling ‘11th
American Factory (2017): Top notch organizational
ethnography about a Chinese reboot of rust belt infrastructure shows the
conflict between two systems of labor and production. Practicing Buddhist
billionaire Cao’s self-doubts regarding his actions ruining the world appear
genuine, and thus one wonders if anyone in either Beijing or DC is listening.
The Road I’m On (2019): Oddly, this was probably the most disturbing film of the fifty on this list. Garth Brooks has apparently become some all-too-certain ‘family values’ propagandist due to his consuming guilt about missing part of his children’s childhood. I didn’t think I could so intensely dislike a celebrity, let alone the seemingly benign, or at least inoffensive and inconsequential Brooks, but after three hours it wasn’t a problem to shoot out the dance.